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School board votes against raise for Rincon Valley teachers

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The Rincon Valley school board on Thursday voted to scrap a three-year plan to raise teachers’ salaries, as it seeks to reckon with its own $3 million math error and the reality that state education funding could shrink by 10% this fall.

The board called a special session to revisit the tentative Feb. 26 agreement with nearly 230 members of the Rincon Valley Union Teachers Association after the rare budgeting error was discovered in mid-April, marking the first setback for the 12% raise that would have phased in over three years. The teachers’ gains were further jeopardized by the economic downturn from the coronavirus, which the five-member Board of Trustees cited frequently in its meeting that was watched by more than 260  people on Zoom.

Chief Business Official Allen Watts, who started the job in April, discovered the district had added the raises as a one-time expense instead of as ongoing, changing the fiscal impact by $3 million. He was the third business manager to handle district finances since negotiations began in November.

The Sonoma County Office of Education said this week it would require an additional $2.5 million in cuts if the board approved the pay raise — even before coronavirus-related funding changes are factored in.

School board clerk Mike Cook lamented there was no other option but to vote down the agreement and go back to the bargaining table.

“I’m disappointed we’re at this point,” he said. “But running our district into the ground with a raise agreement is not something I want to be known for in this community. I’m hopeful we can continue to talk to the teachers and work with the union on something that’s sustainable for everyone.”

Rincon Valley Superintendent Tracy Smith said the district will offer a one-year contract with a 5% raise and increased health benefits, the same terms as the first year of the initial agreement.

RVUTA negotiators disputed a math error occurred, and accused the district of making the deal in bad faith by not sending the agreement to the county education office for review sooner. Smith said the lag was a result of the changing environment caused by the pandemic and the time it took to onboard Watts, who crafted the paperwork for the county education office.

After the board decision Thursday, union president Samantha Tuor said she was “struck silent,” and took issue with the way teachers were characterized over the last few weeks.

The February agreement was intended to help boost wages for hundreds of teachers in the second-largest feeder district for Santa Rosa City Schools. Teachers in the district are paid 18% less than the state average.

Teachers shouldn’t be chastised for advocating for better pay, Tuor said, and Cook’s comments that their contract would run “our district into the ground” made it harder to garner support.

“That’s the overarching dialogue about teachers in general, and not just in our district,” said Tuor, an eighth-grade teacher at Rincon Valley Charter School. “There’s this appreciation, but when we ask to be fairly compensated, we’re treated as though we’re taking money away from children.”

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington, who has been an educator for more than four decades, said miscalculations during contract negotiations can happen, but “a compounding math error is not common.”

The one-year contract offered to Rincon Valley teachers could become a more commonplace approach as school districts confront the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Herrington said the negotiating environment districts experienced during the Great Recession could return, and unions may have to consider reduced benefits, salary freezes and even fewer workdays to help districts stay afloat. Even with those compromises, shedding staff will be unavoidable.

“Most districts are going to have to make cuts, even those that have settled (contracts) this year,” he said. “It’s not so much they have to cut their (salary) schedules — they have to cut their operating budgets. Unfortunately, school is a people business.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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